It was the best of times, it was 1968.

Over at Shadowplay, you'll find, next to a eulogy for Shirley Temple, David Cairns' latest issue of our '68 Comeback Special. This week he's got Jiří Menzel's Capricious Summer, a thing of aimless, ageless beauty. I fell hard for this film when I bought Criterion's Czech New-Wave boxset a few years ago. After the rich, politically charged farce of Closely Watched Trains, Menzel rightly felt he deserved a break from such serious cinema. Or rather, tension and plotting so fab, it plays like a splendid high-wire act. What better way to celebrate than with an actual high-wire act? Capricious Summer is about a group of men bewitched in different ways by the appearance of a magician, or rather, his voluptuous assistant. Its pleasures are myriad. Jana Preissová, the assistant, is one of the screen's most lithe and enduring sirens (Menzel sure had an eye. Try not to bond for life with Closely Watched Trains' naughty telegraphist played by Jitka Zelenohorská, whose only fault is that her name isn't Jitka Bendová like I thought it was. To be famous for having a pervy station agent stamp your butt in one of the most erotic scenes in history, you couldn't have a better name than Bendová. Alas...). 

Preissová does little but walk about collecting donations in an orange leotard and black face mask, but she's the kind of beauty you feel you've known all your life. Unsurprisingly, the three men at the heart of the story fall madly in lust with her. Watching her perform a pantomime of the high wire act in form-fitting pink cloth jumpsuit is unspeakably sensual. Watching the men watching her is an immense joy. Menzel works wonders with hidden depths. What looks like an attempted rape ends in an unexpected nap; the look on Preissová's face when she realizes what's happened is almost enough to give this film the top prize. But charming enchantments like this are rarely the sort of film that net fancy awards, for which the world is a shameful place sometimes. It's tempting to want to give Rudolf Hrusínský best actor or split the actress prize between Míla Myslíková and Preissová, for representing the problems of need vs. want so splendidly, but that prize would have to rest in Menzel's hands, who draws out their essence like a sorcerer. Hrusínský doesn't appear to have a great deal of range, playing sad, flummoxed and angry and sort of shuffling through every frame, but Menzel fits him in a world of such faded splendor, that he appears to have the dynamism of Brando at his best. And the women don't do quite enough to earn the prize, but Menzel projects them onto this backdrop in a way that renders them earthbound angels. And that is rather the heart of Capricious Summer. When you are a sad man with no ambition, a beautiful woman can be the most important thing in the world for a short time, even if your wife is, for all intents and purposes, perfect for you. On a more personal note, I cribbed a little from Capricious Summer when I made my film House of Little Deaths. I was totally in love with the way Menzel filmed his enchantress and tried to take a little of that magic for myself. That film has yet to be seen by a large audience, but here's a little look (best I could do on short notice) at what I was up to and how much I love this magical little movie. 

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